5 Ways for Teachers to Take a Self-Compassion Break

While working nonstop to help their students thrive, educators often end up neglecting their own well-being. High-school counsellor and Mindful Self-Compassion teacher Lisa Baylis offers a toolbox of simple practices for educators to offer themselves the same compassion they show in the classroom.

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A new year often becomes a time that adds extra pressure to do more and to be better. While some people find the promise of the first few months of the year energizing and inspiring, for overwhelmed teachers, it can be the tipping point—especially as so many educators around the globe are already exhausted. Of course, we can’t control external pressures like the pandemic, but where we do have more power is in the way we choose to show up for ourselves: with acceptance and self-compassion.

This year, how can we give ourselves as educators permission to lean toward self-compassion rather than self-improvement? How can we work toward creating a culture that supports accepting ourselves as we are and being gentle with ourselves as teachers, rather than getting caught up in the constant battle of judgment, criticism, and resolution? Can we practice listening to our kind and compassionate voice while being fully present, rather than getting caught up in the expectation to do more?

Instead of fighting the things we can’t change now, we can give ourselves permission to tend to our well-being and discover ways to be gentle and kind amongst the struggle.

The Value of Compassion in Teaching

Here’s where compassion (especially self-compassion) has a role. When we have compassion, we are moved by another’s suffering and we experience the desire to alleviate and prevent that person’s distress. Although compassion is related to empathy, there is a difference between the two. Empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling, whereas compassion involves the willingness to relieve another person’s suffering. Compassion is empathy in action. 

Compassion is a growing practice among educators these days. By learning more about how to meet our challenges in the moment, we are better able to be present to manage what is happening around us—both in and out of the classroom. With self-compassion, there is an awareness of our own struggles and a wanting to support ourselves because of the struggle.

5 Practices to Help Teachers Heal with Self-Compassion

Try these quick practices to support yourself when you are faced with a stressful moment:

1) Supportive touch

One easy way to care for and comfort yourself when you’re feeling bad is to give yourself a supportive and soothing touch. Gentle and kind touch activates the parasympathetic nervous system to help us calm down and feel safe. It may feel awkward or embarrassing at first, but your body doesn’t know that. Just as a baby responds to being cuddled in its mother’s arms, we respond to the physical gesture of warmth and care. Physical touch releases oxytocin, provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions, and calms cardiovascular stress. So why not try it?

You might like to try this quick practice of placing a hand over your heart during difficult periods, several times a day, for a period of at least a week.

  1. When you notice you’re under stress, take 2-3 deep, satisfying breaths.
  2. Gently place your hand over your heart, feeling the gentle pressure and warmth of your hand. If you wish, place both hands on your chest, noticing the difference between one and two hands.
  3. Feel the touch of your hand on your chest. If you wish, you could make small circles with your hand on your chest.
  4. Feel the natural rising and falling of your chest as you breathe in and as you breathe out.
  5. Linger with the feeling for as long as you like.

2) Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your students

Pause for a moment, and take a mini-break right now: Take a deep breath. Can you talk to yourself in a kind, caring, and comforting way, just like you would talk to a dear friend or student who is struggling? If this person were to hear a beautiful heart-to-heart message, what words would you offer them? Can you offer yourself the same message? 

Talking to ourselves the way we talk to a friend, colleague or loved one can have a huge impact during stressful situations.

3) Try a self-compassion break

Think of a difficult situation in your life that is causing you stress, such as a health problem, a relationship problem, a work problem, or perhaps a friend who is struggling. (Please choose a mild to moderate problem, not an overwhelming problem, since this will help you to gradually build up the resources of self-compassion.) Visualize the situation clearly in your mind.

Can you feel discomfort in your body as you bring this difficulty to mind? If not, please choose a slightly more difficult problem. Once you have identified a situation, practice going through these three steps.

1. First, bring mindfulness to how you feel about this situation: Try saying to yourself, “This is a moment of difficulty.” That’s mindfulness: acknowledging what is present for you, without judging it or pushing it away. Feel free to use different words that feel authentically your own. Some options are:

  • This hurts.
  • Ouch.
  • This is stressful.

2. Next, acknowledge that this problem is deeply human: Now try saying to yourself, “Difficulty is a part of life.” That’s common humanity. Other options include:

  • I’m not alone.
  • Everyone experiences this, just like me.
  • This is how it feels when people struggle in this way.

3. End with a moment of kindness toward yourself and the challenges you’re facing. Try saying to yourself, “May I be kind to myself” or “May I give myself what I need.” That’s self-kindness. Perhaps there are other words of kindness and support you need to hear while going through this challenging situation. Some options are:

  • May I accept myself as I am.
  • May I begin to accept myself as I am.
  • May I forgive myself.
  • May I be strong.
  • May I be patient.

If you’re having difficulty finding the right words, imagine that a dear friend or loved one is having the same problem as you. What would you say to this person? What simple message would you like to deliver to your friend, heart to heart? Now see if you can offer the same message to yourself.

As you offer yourself this message, you may wish to put your hands over your heart and feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch on your chest. You may also adopt any other physically soothing or supportive gesture that feels right. 

4) Name it to tame it / Feel it to heal it

When difficult emotions come up, try expanding your awareness to disentangle yourself from the difficult emotion.

We do this by labeling and validating the emotion. As UCLA psychiatry professor Dr. Daniel Siegel famously said, we need to “name it to tame it”: When we label our emotion (“Oh, hello sadness”), we can usually create some emotional freedom around the feeling.

How we label our feelings is also important. Using a warm, accepting, and empathetic tone—one that we would use to address a loved one or student—rather than a monotone voice, can make all the difference. Try it the next time you’re feeling a big emotion. What would it be like to hear yourself say, “Oh honey, this is hard,” rather than “Here I am, angry again”?

Once you’ve labeled your feeling, you need to “feel it to heal it.” That’s because our body is the center of emotion, not our head. Our thoughts move quickly, and it’s often challenging to linger with them long enough to work with them, but our body is relatively slow-moving. When we locate an emotion in our body and change our relationship with it, the emotion itself may start to change.

For instance, are your shoulders ever tight at the end of a long school day, especially when it’s been difficult? The next time you realize that you’ve had a hard day, see if you can “feel” the stress in your shoulders. Let yourself notice the sensations in this area—maybe tightness, warmth, pressure. Whatever sensations are present for you, see if you can gently pay attention to them for a few seconds, rather than judging them as bad.

5) Be your best teacher

Think back to your favorite teacher who motivated you and helped you learn. Were they critical and harsh or kind and motivating? For many of us, our most memorable teachers are the ones who still expected our best, while at the same time, we were able to learn and grow from their warmth, strong boundaries, and positive intentions. When you find yourself struggling at school, try to imagine what this favourite teacher of yours might offer you as words of wisdom. Can you hear their advice in your head as a strong, compassionate voice?  

There is no quick and simple solution to the struggles educators are feeling these days. However, we can attend to stressful situations with care and compassion. In fact, it may be the only way to truly sustain our long-term well-being. 

As educators, meeting ourselves with self-compassion can have a transformative effect on how we approach our work, as well as other areas of our lives. When we feel exhausted from caring about and feeling for so many of our students, self-compassion can help us navigate our struggle before we reach the point of overwhelm or burnout. It allows us to be our best selves and positions us to better support our students and develop meaningful relationships with them. And, perhaps most importantly, it allows us to accept that we don’t need to demand perfection from ourselves—we are already worthy of all the compassion we need. 

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